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Menorah miracle lights up endless debate

  • ParshaRabbiSamThurgood
Chanukah! Can you smell the latkes? Can you hear the faint echoes of Moaz Tzur? Do your fingers already feel a little slippery in anticipation of the impossible-to-remove olive oil? (Or hot from candle wax, if that’s your vibe!)
by Rabbi Sam Thurgood, Beit Midrash Morasha | Nov 29, 2018

On Chanukah, we do all of the good Jewish things: celebrate the victory of light over darkness, spend time together in family and community (eating), publicise Hashem’s miracles, and give one hundred involved and complicated answers to a single question!

The question I am referring to is, “Why do we light the candles for eight nights?” Now, lest you respond, “Um, because the miracle was for eight nights?” the question in its fuller form is, “Since there was enough oil to last for only one night, and miraculously Hashem made it last for eight nights, it seems that the first night was not miraculous, only the subsequent seven were. So if we’re lighting to celebrate the miracle, shouldn’t we light for only seven nights?”

Before sharing some answers with you, I want to point out some attitudes towards Torah learning. Torah is serious business – as we say in the blessings before the Shema each evening, “For they [the words of Torah] are our life and the length of our days.” Torah gives structure and meaning to our lives, regulates societies, and makes the entire world a more fitting home for G-d, therefore fulfilling the ultimate purpose of creation, but it’s also a joy and delectable treat.

King David in Tehillim/Psalms 119:92 calls Torah “my delight” and throughout history, our great Torah scholars have experienced Torah as both a duty and a pleasure. Rabbi Avraham Tanzer tells the story of Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, the Rosh Yeshiva of Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, who found himself with a guest who was an accomplished and erudite scholar. Rabbi Gifter excitedly called one of his students: “Hey, we have a Talmid chochom here, and we’re talking Torah! Come on over and have some fun!” So in answering this question, our sages were not only trying to solve a centuries-old conundrum, but to bring new light to Chanukah through creative exploration of the topic.

“So, nu?” I can hear you ask, “what are the answers?” Well, I’ll share a selection with you.

  • The first night of Chanukah is a celebration of the military victory of the Maccabees, and the miracle of finding even the single jug of oil to begin with. (Meiri)
  • Each night, the amount of oil that was consumed was only an eighth of what should have been, thus the miracle began from the first moment. (Beit Yosef)
  • The Greeks waged war on Judaism, which they symbolised by the brit milah (bris). In celebration of our victory, we celebrated for eight days, just as with a bris. (Ba’al HaIttim)
  • They used very thin, small wicks to conserve oil; nonetheless it burned brighter and more beautifully than ever. (Chiddushei HaRim)

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